With bean bags and inflatable cartoon palm trees, Brent Hoberman’s bright and cheery office feels like a place that has long since banished negative thoughts.
The internet pioneer is one of Britain’s best-connected technology entrepreneurs and well known for founding lastminute.com during the dotcom boom. He comes with an easy manner which suits the office’s atmosphere – complete with table tennis and a beer-filled fridge – but his warning on the effects of rising technology is far from laid back.
‘Every day in my job I see amazing things that technology can do to reduce mundane, boring tasks. Whether that is robotic picking of fruit or automation of the more boring parts of legal or accountancy work,’ he says.
Pioneer: Brent Hoberman is one of Britain’s dotcom poster boys and an adviser to the Government on all things tech
‘I can definitely see a period where technology is ahead of skills and jobs replacement. The optimist says the more the better because we’ll all be enjoying more leisure time. But unless we’re very smart, it feels like there will be some decades of job displacement and we need to try to get ahead of that as much as possible.’
Hoberman thinks the rise of artificial intelligence could trigger a 20-year period where more jobs are lost than created because of robots.
As one of Britain’s dotcom poster boys and an adviser to the Government on all things tech, Hoberman’s views matter.
And he has some strong views on the technology giants which find themselves under fire from all an-gles. The European Commission unveiled plans last week to tax tech companies based on sales, rather than profits, while the Cambridge Analytica scandal has put Facebook firmly under the microscope.
On the Facebook data crisis, he says: ‘I think that it will embolden the regulators and the European regulators in particular. They’re looking for ways to blunt these giants and they were gifted something there.’
The suave entrepreneur has worked behind the scenes with tech companies as part of his role as chairman of the Duke of Cambridge’s cyber-bullying taskforce and experienced first-hand their stubbornness to fix their problems.
Founders Factory, pictured, is an ‘incubator’ for start-ups
‘When I chaired the taskforce, it was hard to get many in the industry to collaborate together. We did do some things we were very proud of but there were other things we didn’t get to do,’ he says.
Born in South Africa, he was inspired to be an entrepreneur by his grandfather who built an empire of 650 clothes shops. As a child, he loved gadgets and says he even had his own pirate radio station.
After spending his early years in America, he finally settled in Britain and was sent to Eton.
Facebook crisis will embolden the regulators. They’re looking for ways to blunt those giants
The young Hoberman went on to study languages at Oxford. Many Oxford graduates at the time went into either banking or consulting. He opted for the latter but quickly realised it wasn’t for him. Fed up with the bosses, he once threw a party for 400 people and caused chaos after he gave the reception telephone number as the RSVP.
He was eventually fired when those in charge began intentionally scheduling meetings they knew he would be unable to attend because of other work obligations. But while that consultancy did not work out for him, in a strange twist it led to a celebrated success after he interviewed a young Martha Lane Fox for a job at his next business.
Together, they went on to set up travel site lastminute.com, listing it on the stock market just as the dotcom bubble started to burst. It was sold a few years later for £570million, giving Hoberman a £30million payday.
He went on to co-found furniture site Made.com, which last week raised £40million to fund its expansion and is one of the few British start-ups to conquer Europe.
These days, he spends his time fielding pitches from budding entrepreneurs as chairman of Founders Factory, his tech company start-up ‘incubator’ backed by corporate giants such as easyJet and L’Oréal which nurtures fledgling business ideas.
The small screen: Hoberman wants built-in tools to help addicted children
He runs Founders Forum, the spin-off which hosts start-up events around the world and has also, perhaps bizarrely, found himself back in the world of consultancy among other work interests with Founders Intelligence, a digital consultancy which advises Tesco and Sky.
More recently, he raised more than £60million for a new fund called Firstminute Capital which will invest in Europe. He is less hands-on at Made.com now, having ‘fired myself as chairman’, but still closely monitors progress. He now has plans to take Founders Factory global.
Does Hoberman, 50 this year, ever switch off? He spends weekends with his wife and three children at their home just a short walk from the Kensington office.
He watches the kids play sport and even plays five-a-side football so he can keep up with his football-mad nine-year-old son. ‘He’d already say he was better than me.’
A lot of the tech entrepreneurs need to work out what social good they do – rather than just what profits they make
But talk of his kids takes us on to his other obsession: Silicon Valley’s reluctance to tackle children’s smartphone addiction.
He suggests his own are ‘addicted’, admitting the problem is one close to his heart.
He wants built-in tools to help children get a grip on their addictions and even limit the amount of time they spend staring at their screens each day.
‘Helping children cope with addiction is a critical job of parents and it’s made much harder by the tech industry,’ he explains.
But he says parental responsibility is also vital and wants to reach a ‘tipping point where every parent understands that, “No, their children cannot have their phone in their room after 8pm” and, “No, their child cannot spend four hours on social networks a day”.’
Even the Silicon Valley elite have stopped letting their kids use phones, he points out. Sean Parker, former Facebook president, said last year: ‘God only knows what it’s doing to our children’s brains.’
Left to right: Brent Hoberman, James Okulaja of Young People’s Panel, The Duke of Cambridge and Matt Brittin, President EMEA Business and Operations at Google
Earlier this month, Matt Hancock, the Culture Secretary who Hoberman advises, said the Government was considering limiting the time children can spend on social media. There has even been talk of Facebook, Google and Twitter being asked to fund ‘recovery schemes’ for kids addicted to their sites.
On smartphone addiction, Hoberman has put his money where his mouth is. Founders Factory has just invested in a fledgling Norwegian firm called Hold, whose mobile app rewards young people for switching off their phones with points that can be turned into prizes such as cinema tickets.
‘A lot of the tech entrepreneurs have identified now that they need to work out what social good their companies are doing rather than just what profits they’re making,’ he adds.
‘We have seen a rise in parenting control apps and now I think we see more tools for children themselves where they can understand their own behaviour online and we can help them control their addictions and how to behave online.
‘I think it’s something we would all like to have seen the tech companies do more willingly and faster.’